Before I saw you, I never looked twice at a pilot. Not the way I looked at you. Never got butterflies for the epaulets, the bedtime-story voice, the pair of gilded wings you kept close to your heart. Then you looked at me. You looked at me. Across the concourse, across the bar in an airport in a city strange to both of us, across hoards of passing people, and you smiled. Fuck, that smile. Blinding. Nuclear. I was ready to let you destroy me.
You belonged beside millionaires, you and your flashpoint smile, your watch like Aphrodite’s belt. You belonged to them. The bubbles branded you—after a long day crossing continents and oceans, you should have been drinking merlot, not a travel-size can of ginger ale. My wings didn’t stop me. I wore a pair close to my heart too, but not the way you wore yours. When you sat down across from me, I expected a lecture. But you only wanted to know if I was okay. You. A stranger. Worried about my career.
“Long day,” I said, and took another sip. “You know. Trying to please an entire plane with pretzels and ginger ale.”
Sunlight eyes. Your hand moved to cover the streak of grease on your shirt, but I’d already seen it. You must have walked around the airplane yourself, touched it, made sure your souls would be safe. Glinting in the candlelight, your wings caught my eye, then the empty space where your name should have been. “Must have been a pretty unhappy plane if you’re drinking in uniform,” you said in that bedtime-story voice, dragging a tired smile out of me.
I shrugged. “Or maybe I’m just bad at my job.”
“Or maybe you had a bad day. You can give some people the world and they still want more.” I watched your light die with the words. You find other lonely souls when you’re looking for them. Maybe that’s why we found each other. “But I’m happy with good company.”
“What makes you so sure I’m good company?”
“I appreciate boldness.” You glanced at the merlot, the corner of your lip upturned. “Truth be told, I could use a glass myself.”
“Do you want a sip?” I asked, knowing you were too good to say yes.
“Yes.” A kiss on the wrist. Fuck, I was weak. “But not here.”
Two souls. Lonely among thousands. You bought a bottle and poured a glass to share in a room in a hotel too good for me. I’d never been in a hotel room with a stranger before. Loneliness changes people, makes them forget commitment for a touch—anyone’s touch. But your hand never made it past my thigh. After that first glass, you only wanted to talk. About your friends and your favorite songs and everywhere you’d been in the world. You were five years older than I was and much less worn. I was drinking in the airport hoping that glass of merlot would get me fired. You hated the thought that anybody could hate flying. Thank you for not telling me I was wrong, for listening when I told you why I hated what you loved most. Thank you. Thank you for hearing me.
And thank you for reminding me why I chose this: I used to be lonely all the time. People need me in the sky. People have to talk to me, even the ones who aren’t lonely. Every time somebody asks for merlot or orange juice or ginger ale, my heart pounds. And they thank me and I say you’re welcome and move on to the next row, but knowing I made someone happy, just for a few seconds, is everything. Almost everything.
You made me happy on the other side of that earthy glass of red wine, the red like the city after rain, the red that tasted like a beginning. No more drinking to forget. No more forgettable shots in forgettable cities. I let the taste of the last drop of the last glass linger, bent on remembering you by notes of smoke and cedar. You, the one who listened, asleep beside me with your fingers between mine.
In the morning, you woke late. Kissed me on the cheek and ran out the door. All those short hours together and your name didn't come up once, Alex, not the first time I met you. And I didn’t think to ask until it was too late. Lonely again, I tried to hold it together on the way to work, but I couldn’t. The driver didn’t ask why. I don’t know what I would have told him anyway. He left me at the curb with my suitcase. Then I got on my own plane and left and no one else knew about the glass, and then the bottle, of merlot.
Aviation is funny; it’s a small world, even though it connects the whole thing. You can’t go anywhere without seeing someone you know. Sometimes a familiar face from a shift covered four years ago. Sometimes a best friend from training you haven’t heard from in a few years because you both got busy, or at least that’s what you tell each other. Sometimes you. Across the concourse. Across the restaurant in a city strange to both of us. Across hoards of passing people. Ginger ale in one hand, suitcase in the other, smiling like the sun. The Fates must have been smiling too.
“Oh my g—I worried I’d never see you again.” You dropped your luggage on the floor. Kissed me. My mind went blank—I wanted more. “You’re not on Facebook.”
Too many happy couples. Not what I needed after a breakup, and somehow I saw more afterward than I ever did before. “And you found your name tag.” A. Ford. “Do you drive a Ford too? Your parents must have liked them.”
Stupid joke. You laughed anyway, just like I knew you would. I stopped making stupid jokes a few years before I met you, Alex. Just . . . wasn’t in the mood. Light spreads, I guess. Illuminates parts of yourself you put away for other people. “Alex Ford, actually,” you said. Most beautiful name in the world. “And no, they had to make me a new one. Then I found it in the bottom of my backpack two weeks later.”
To think someone like you could ever make a mistake. I still don’t believe it. Still don’t believe you’re human. “So many missing passports, A. Ford. You have no idea,” I said, taking a sip of iced tea.
“Can’t help but notice you’re not drinking merlot today.” You leaned in close over the table, your chair’s back legs in the air, your lips inches from mine. “Is there a reason?”
“Three, actually. One, it’s nine in the morning, A. Ford.” I touched your face. A face I must have seen in another life. “You must be jet-lagged.”
You glanced at your watch. Took my hand in yours. Turned your pretty eyes back on me. “Very. What’s two?”
“Two, that bottle you bought was the best wine I’ve ever had. I don’t think anything else could compare, but my opinion might be circumstantial.” The ice shifted in my glass. “I was drinking it in front of a nice view.”
“You have good taste. It’s my favorite too, but I can’t take all the credit. It found me more than I found it.” Closer. You smelled of peppermint and kerosene and ice from the outside. No one else wore the smell of flight like you. “What’s three?”
“And three—” I kissed your wrist. Back came the smile. “I wanted to keep my job long enough to see you again. And then I kind of remembered why I liked it in the first place. Maybe I’ll run into you again.”
“We could leave it to fate. Or we could take fate into our own hands.” You kissed me hard, your hand on my thigh. “How about another glass?”